20 Things You Didn't Know About Hops

Across the Pacific Northwest and throughout Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovenia the world's hop farmers are eyeing the ripening hop cones in their field and getting ready for their busiest time of year: harvest. Demand for hops has surged in recent years as increasing numbers of drinkers turn away from light lagers and towards hoppier styles like India Pale Ales. Yet drinkers often know little about the brewing spice that lends so much flavor to their favorite beers. 

With this in mind we accepted an invitation from Anheuser-Busch and Goose Island to join them for a three-day tour of Elk Mountain Farm in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, the world's largest contiguous hop farm. We marched through muddy fields, rubbed and sniffed cones, watched ravenous combines chew their way through the fields and toured the clattering plants where the valuable cones are separated from the leaves and stems before being dried in massive kilns. Here are 20 things we learned about hops and why small brewers are at risk of another hop shortage:


1. While people have been brewing beer for thousands of years the use of hops is a much more recent innovation. The earliest recorded use of wild hops in beer was in 822, but organized hop cultivation didn't begin in earnest until the 1100s in modern day Germany.  

2. Before brewers began using hops in their beers, they used a wide range of botanicals to provide bitterness and balancing flavors. Today we refer to these botanical-brewed beers as Gruits.

3. Brewers use hops in their beer for several reasons, chief among them to provide a bitter counterpoint to the sweet malts, to impart distinct flavors and aromas, their antimicrobial properties, and head retention.

4. Hops are picky about where they'll grow. The sweet spot is between the 35th and 55th parallels of both hemispheres where hops get long day-length, hot summers, and just as importantly, cold winters. Hops go into a dormancy phase over the winter, concentrating all of their energy in their roots. All of the world's major hop growing regions are found between these parallels from the Pacific Northwest of the United States to England, Belgium, and Germany in Europe and the emerging New Zealand industry in the Southern Hemisphere.

5. In the early part of the 20th century, hop production in the U.S. was centered in upstate New York, but an epidemic of powdery and downy mildew forced production to start shifting to the Pacific Northwest. When prohibition was enacted, it proved to be the death knell for New York hop growing. 

6. Today, the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho's panhandle grow 97.8 percent of the hops in the United States.  Anchored by its famous Yakima Valley, Washington alone accounts for almost 74 percent of the domestic industry.

7. Most hop farms are family-owned and independently run operations. Elk Mountain Farms is a notable exception. Anheuser-Busch bought the farm in 1988. While the farm produces less than 10 percent of the hops that Anheuser-Busch and Goose Island use today they still saw value in learning about their raw materials firsthand and guiding research. "The industry connection is important," noted Jane Killebrew, Anheuser-Bush's Director of Brewing, Quality and Innovation. "We needed to understand the business and the only way to understand the business is to own the business." 

8. Hops grow on trellises that are usually 18 feet in height. Since they're such hardy climbers, hops are often mistakenly called vines, but they're technically bines. While a vine will climb by sending our tendrils or suckers to grab onto a support, a bine will climb by using its shoot alone. The bine grows clockwise around a support as it follows the sun across the sky. Minute downward pointing bristles on the shoot help the plant keep its grip as it climbs.

9. All the plants in a specific hop cultivar or variety can be traced back to a single original plant. By taking cuttings from a plant, hop growers can reproduce the growing characteristics and flavors of this hop without any drift from one generation to the next.  

10. While male hop plants are invaluable parts of hop breeding programs, the acres of crops that you see climbing trellises on hop farms are entirely female plants. Hop growers are particular about the varieties of hops that they grow and keeping male plants out of the yard ensures that there will be no genetic drift in the plants.

11. Hop breeders mate male and female plants in a controlled environment to create and test new varieties. While breeders hope to produce a new variety that will create exciting flavors for brewers, their first priority is good agronomics. If a new hop can't produce a good yield and display good resistance to disease and pests they'll never make it into full production regardless of their flavors. 

12. Most hop breeding is financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture who began researching hops in 1930. They released their first new cultivar, Cascade in 1972. This grapefruit and pine flavored hop variety received a lukewarm reception until upstart brewers like Anchor and Sierra Nevada began utilizing it in their aggressively flavored pale ales and IPAs. 

13. Tests done on hop oils with gas chromatographs have found over 400 different compounds in hop oils and more are being found all the time. How each of those compounds effects flavor and aroma is still not well understood and is the subject of intense research.

14. Private hop breeders who successfully discover and propagate a new cultivar apply for patents to protect their ability to be the exclusive growers of the new hop.  Any other farms that seek to grow the variety must reach a licensing agreement with the patent-holding farm before beginning production. Elk Mountain Farms had to license the Amarillo cultivar from Virgil Gamache Farms in Yakima Valley in order to plant the cultivar in their fields. 

15. Not all hops cultivars come from organized breeding programs. Hops that are found growing wildly in nature are known as landrace varieties. Cluster hops are one of the older American landrace varieties that has been put into production on hop farms. 
 
16. Brewers aren't alone in carefully selecting their hop cultivars. The farmers at Elk Mountain farms have noted that the local deer happily feed on the leaves of some varieties and leave others alone entirely.

17. Growing hops is capital intensive. Preparing the ground, erecting trellises and the labor of growing the cuttings of the plants themselves up in a greenhouse all drive the costs. "It costs about 68 thousand dollars to plant an acre of hops," according to Goose Island Brewmaster Brett Porter.  

18. It typically takes three years for a hop plant to reach full maturity in the field. The long lag time between planting and production means that it's difficult for hop growers to optimize their supply of hops with brewer's demands for it. "It's not always going to be boom times," says Goose Island Brewmaster Brett Porter. "The industry cycles through boom times and busts, but I hope that they can find a sustainable model." 

19. Most brewers sign contracts to buy their hops from farmers and wholesalers. The contracts give growers assurances that there will be a market for their product and deal with the long lead times it takes to plant new acreage. The benefit to brewers is that the contracts can protect them from shortages and pricing fluctuations in years when the market is tight. While hop contracts used to run two to three years, the proliferation of new breweries and the popularity of hop intensive IPAs is leading to contracts that run up to seven years.

20. The hops that are left over after all the contracts have been filled are sold on what it known as the spot market. In times of plenty, prices on the spot market dive. Goose Island Brewmaster Brett Porter told us, "I remember years where you could buy Cascades at $1.75 per pound and you could probably talk them down to $1.25. It used to be a market of plenty. Now you contract and pray that the hops are going to be there. There's absolutely going to be a shortage and people are going to suffer. Smaller brewers and brewers relying on the spot market will be exposed. It's going to be a mess."